A Charlotte Mason Education, History, Living Books, Mason Co-op, Narration, Practical Application
Comments 8

Charlotte Mason Undercover: An Attempt to Implement Mason’s Ideas in a Traditional Homeschool Co-op Setting by Jeannette Tulis

In general I have learned to steer clear of traditional homeschool co-ops as they tend to drive your homeschool schedule, and not where you want it to go! For a number of years I organized a CM style early elementary class for the “extras,” those subjects which all too often get short shrift in a busy homeschool curriculum: picture study, poetry recitations, composer study, hymn singing and nature study.  The moms who have been part of my little enrichment class have learned how these lessons are not at all as intimidating as they once feared. In teaching these lessons to other children I have ensured that my youngest son will be getting the benefit of those lessons as well. If I commit to teach others, that means I will have to teach my own! But this year I agreed to teach the early elementary history class for a local co-op. It was time for me to do my part in the group I was using to furnish my sons with high school level science classes and labs. In addition, I was taking a break from teaching my little CM enrichment class but I wanted my son (eight going on eighteen with only teen age brothers to hang with!) to be around some children his own age.

In agreeing to teach this class, I warned the organizers that I was not going to utilize lap books, notebooking, model building, posters or other popular typical classroom activities. Not that these are not effective ways to teach, they just are not the way I prefer to teach. The organizers agreed to this so I set about planning a class that would be built around living ideas and living books following Mason’s teachings as much as possible.  I consulted with some wiser CM heads than mine and came up with a vision for the class. The pre-selected period of history being covered was American History from 1865 to the present. My class would consist of first through third graders and my time with them would be limited to just under an hour.

Here are some of Mason’s ideas about teaching history (italicized) and how I attempted to implement them in the co-op. My hope is that it will encourage those moms and teachers who may not have the benefit of dedicated CM co-ops, schools or classes.

1. Eschew outlines and abstracts:

For the matter for this intelligent teaching of history, eschew, in the first place, nearly all history books written expressly for children; and in the next place, all compendiums, outlines, abstracts whatsoever. For the abstracts, considering what part the study of history is fitted to play in the education of the child, there is not a word to be said in their favour; and as for what are called children’s books, the children of educated parents are able to understand history written with literary power, and are not attracted by the twaddle of reading-made-easy little history books. (Vol. 1 p. 281)

The grade 4-6 history class was going to use a popular outline which gave a different topic for each week. The organizers suggested I follow suit. My expert CM advisors suggested I look at the outline and then choose 3 big ideas for each term (the school year consists roughly of 3 terms with 11 weeks in each term). That way I could dwell in one book for at least 3 – 4 weeks and I would not be hopping around from one topic to the next each week with the result that the students would just be dipping their toes in each topic, so to speak. Also I could choose some meatier books, knowing I had 3-4 weeks to read them instead of being under the pressure of finding books that could be finished in one reading.

2. Living Books:

We take the child to the living sources of history––a child of seven is fully able to comprehend Plutarch, in Plutarch’s own words (translated), without any diluting and with little explanation. Give him living thought in this kind, and you make possible the co-operation of the living Teacher. The child’s progress is by leaps and bounds, and you wonder why. (Vol. 4 p. 278)

One more thing is of vital importance; children must have books, living books; the best are not too good for them; anything less than the best is not good enough; and if it is needful to exercise economy, let go everything that belongs to soft and luxurious living before letting go the duty of supplying the books, and the frequent changes of books, which are necessary for the constant stimulation of the child’s intellectual life.
(Vol. 4 p. 279)

If it were just up to me, I would have picked out two or three living books each term:  a spine, a biography and an excellent historical fiction and would have read each one aloud for 10 minutes followed by a narration. But I knew that children not used to narrating might have difficulty with this program. So I included a variety of living books and living ideas.

3. Narration

Indeed, it is most interesting to hear children of seven or eight go through a long story without missing a detail, putting every event in its right order. These narrations are never a slavish reproduction of the original. A child’s individuality plays about what he enjoys, and the story comes from his lips, not precisely as the author tells it, but with a certain spirit and colouring which express the narrator. By the way, it is very important that children should be allowed to narrate in their own way, and should not be pulled up or helped with words and expressions from the text.
A narration should be original as it comes from the child––that is, his own mind should have acted upon the matter it has received. (Vol. 1 p. 289)

Again, I was aware that narration was a completely new idea to most of these students so I planned to have short readings from living books, followed by a time for the children to tell back. I knew my son could set the example if need be. I also realized that we might have to take baby steps to acquaint the students with narration.

4. Dwelling in a period of time and focus on biography

Let him, on the contrary, linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until he thinks the thoughts of that man, is at home in the ways of that period. Though he is reading and thinking of the lifetime of a single man, he is really getting intimately acquainted with the history of a whole nation for a whole age . . . If he come to think that the people of another age were truer, larger-hearted, simpler-minded than ourselves, that the people of some other land were, at one time, at any rate, better than we, why, so much the better for him. (Vol. 1 p. 280)

We recognise that history for him is, to live in the lives of those strong personalities which at any given time impress themselves most upon their age and country. (Vol. 2 p. 279)

In my plan I picked one person per big idea and chose a living biography which might not be at their reading level but would challenge them with interesting vocabulary and ideas.

5. Museum visits

Miss G. M. Bernau has added to the value of these studies by producing a ‘Book of Centuries’ in which children draw such illustrations as they come across of objects of domestic use, of art, etc., connected with the century they are reading about. This slight study of the British Museum we find very valuable; whether the children have or have not the opportunity of visiting the Museum itself, they have the hope of doing so, and, besides, their minds are awakened to the treasures of local museums.  (Vol. 6. p. 176)

Of course we could not visit a museum each week so I implemented. In my e-mail to the moms to prepare them for my class, I asked them to each week assist their child to browse books or images on our chosen topic and choose a (preferably) color photograph of an artifact, tool, weapon, article of clothing or other item that was used in the period of history we were studying. The child could bring to class either the original source book or a photocopy of the image.  Each week there would be a time for the child to sketch his or her chosen object into their museum sketch book.

Short Lessons:

“But do not let the lesson last more than ten minutes, and insist, with brisk, bright determination, on the child’s full concentrated attention of eye and mind for the whole ten minutes. Do not allow a moment’s dawdling at lessons. . . “Then, vary the lessons; now head, and now hands; now tripping feet and tuneful tongue; but in every lesson let Kitty and the other two carry away the joyous sense of––
“‘Something attempted, something done.’   ( Vol. 5 p. 30)
 In my plan were short 5 – 10 minute varied lessons including poetry about that period, listening to and narrating living books, picture study of art depicting that time period, listening to music of the period and sketching artifacts into their museum sketch books.

Misc. quotes on history too good to leave out:

Here, too, is a subject which should be to the child an inexhaustible storehouse of ideas, should enrich the chambers of his House Beautiful with a thousand tableaux, pathetic and heroic, and should form in him, insensibly, principles whereby he will hereafter judge of the behaviour of nations, and will rule his own conduct as one of a nation. This is what the study of history should do for the child; (Vol. 1 p 280)

All powers of the mind which we call faculties have brought into play in dealing with the intellectual matter thus afforded; so we may not ask questions to help the child to reason, paint fancy pictures to help him to imagine, draw out moral lessons to quicken his conscience. These things take place as involuntarily as processes of digestion. (Vol. 6 p 174)

We have only met once but our first class exceeded my expectations. Perhaps it is the young age of the children, and the fact that they have not been “schooled”. All 10 of the children in the class were willing to listen, paid careful attention, and were open to try new ideas as they were offered. I had so many children eager to “tell back” that I am going to have to come up with some way to have them take turns! Several dutifully raised their hands waiting to be called on while others just barged on ahead with their tellings.

Here then is the lesson plan I used for the first week. Our first “big idea” is Native American Indians

Week 1:  History Class – grades 1-3

• Poem: “Song to the Firefly”, Anishinabe Indians of the Great Lakes
From The Earth Under Sky Bear’s Feet by Joseph Bruchac
• Reading from Chapter 1 of The Book Of Indians by Holling C. Holling (highly recommended!) followed by narration
• picture study of Indian Encampment at Lake Huron by Paul Kane (1845) followed by narration
•Biography: Geronimo, Wolf of the Warpath by Ralph Moody (Landmark) followed by narration
• Music – “Pipe Songs of the Lakota Indians” (played while we sketch selection into our Museum notebooks) from  Proud Heritage CD, A Celebration of Traditional American Indian Music
•Historical Fiction (time permitting) Life in the Forest, a selection from The Indian Book, a Childcraft annual, (1980) followed by narration

Once again Mason’s ideas prove to be true to the way a child learns. Even when going “undercover” one sees the wisdom of setting the children’s feet in a large room and spreading the feast.

(with many thanks to Leslie Laurio and the Ambleside Online website which has put Mason’s Original Series online and made it wonderfully searchable, allowing me to cut and paste to put together this blog post with relative ease!)

© 2011 by Jeannette Tulis


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. Jeannette,

    This is wonderful. I wonder if your “undercover” work will spark interest from other parents wanting to know more?! What a blessing you are being to those children. I always find it interesting how children who haven’t been narrating in their schools can jump right in and shine – it seems to come naturally. (Hmm..didn’t someone tell us that?) You will have to write a follow-up post when it is over and tell us how it went. I have been out of the “traditional” loop for some time, but do they really use outlines that cover a different topic for each lesson in history?

    Sursum Corda,

  2. Maura Timko says


    May I please come and take your class?:)

    As a homeschool parent, just starting a CM co-op, this article brings such joy to my heart! What a blessing for those children, and such an example for the parents. It is a reminder to me in the best of ways – a living reminder of Mason’s principles in action. I have seen (and unfortunately, stand guilty of having done) the “outline-list-daily topic” method of instruction. To give history a passing glance as you race on through, checking your boxes as you blow past, is the status quo – even when there is a burning desire to do things differently. It really does require a massive paradigm shift, and I am trying desperately to make it. Thank you so much for a living example!

    Maura Timko
    Cincinnati, OH

  3. NicKatMommy says

    Your article is perfect timing for me as we’re preparing for first grade and making history plans. Just wondering … what are your other 2 big ideas? Thanks!

  4. Well done. Even though I am beyond that age in my home, this reminded me of the importance of narration, living books , etc…. I’m sure the kids will thrive.
    I love your last sentence to set them in a large room and spreading the feast!

  5. Jeannette says

    Thank you to everyone for your generous comments. Today was our second class and once again, the children were wonderfully attentive. I even got a thank you note from a mom for sending her child home with optional living book suggestions vs.”busy work” such as worksheets. NickKatMommy, my other two big ideas for this term are Cowboys and Immigrants .Nancy, I will be glad to write a follow up post at the end of the term. Even though teaching this way is not very teacher intensive and it is enjoyable to prepare the lesson, I find myself going off on so many delightful rabbit trails on the artist, the poet and (sigh) I just start reading all those wonderful books!

  6. Jeannette, I may be borrowing your ideas for a co-op of my own! Same situation even with it being for my teen sons moreso for those group experiences but all those tagalong siblings to meaningfully occupy as well. Would you mind sharing the resources you used for your other two big ideas?

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